Hey, @VirginAmerica, tweet me!

Do you use social media? The Pew Research Center recently found that 65 percent of U.S. adults use social networking sites, and a full 90 percent of young adults do. While most of us remember a time less than ten years ago when Twitter was just a twinkle in Jack Dorsey’s eye, it’s safe to say that in another ten years, the next wave of young adults won’t remember a time before Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and so on were the norm.

What does that mean for customer service and your relationship with brands?

I flew from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco last week on Virgin America, and after having a particularly smooth experience, decided to tweet my thanks to the airline. As expected (and as has happened in the past with other airlines), I quickly received a response. In this case, it was, “so great to hear! xo.”

What I didn’t expect is what happened next.

I received a notification that a brand I had never heard of before, Hail Merry Snacks, had mentioned me in a tweet. In fact, it turns out they wanted to start a conversation. They mentioned that they noticed I was flying their favorite airline, and asked if I was traveling for the Super Bowl. I quickly realized they were one of the brands of snacks offered on board Virgin America flights. I replied that I was on a business trip, would try one of their snacks and shared a photo of my empty row. They wrote back and suggested another one of their products to try (unfortunately, it wasn’t offered on my flight).

That’s engagement with a brand that would not have been possible ten years ago, or maybe even five. I learned about them for the first time and came away with a positive impression because they took the time to chat with me like any other person would — human to human. The little touch of, albeit via social media, being treated like a person on my flight — rather than cattle, or luggage — put me in a great mood for the cross-country journey.

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Another great example of customer service I’ve experienced over social media came from Kimpton Hotels & Resorts. (Full disclosure: I am employed by an agency that represents Kimpton Hotels & Resorts.) My then-boyfriend and I checked into a Kimpton property in New York City, and tweeted to Kimpton that we had arrived, and liked the design in our room. They promptly responded. The next day, we had breakfast vouchers waiting for us, thanking us for engaging with the brand on social media. In fact, since then, Kimpton and other brands have launched specific programs to reward guests for interacting with them on social media.

While interacting with the social media personification of a brand can leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, or even with a tangible benefit, what about the flip side — when something goes wrong?

There are plenty of stories in our forums of brands responding more quickly via Facebook or Twitter than traditional customer service channels, and some brands are even specifically known for it. It begs the question — is this a positive thing, or is it just another indication of how broken most customer service systems and procedures are?

I think it’s both, but mostly positive — and I’ll tell you why. Social media is highly visible. It’s public. It’s not hidden behind a recorded phone call or a private paper trail. As such, companies are more inclined than ever not to let a social media interaction with a customer blow up into a public relations (PR) nightmare. In fact, a plethora of advice exists online from top media outlets and experts on how brands can implement customer service best practices via social media. And, as a PR pro myself, I can tell you that one of the first rules is usually to respond directly to the customer and try to take the interaction private. Is it a way for brands to move a potentially angry interaction to the private, rather than public, sphere? Yes. But it also means you get a direct line to the company — quickly — and you’ve got their attention.

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What do you think? Have you interacted with brands via social media? Was the experience positive or negative? Do you think social media has the potential to improve customer service and the way we interact with the companies we support with our spending power?

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Heather Dratler

Lover of all things travel and hospitality, both from a personal and professional standpoint. A PR pro by day, I've represented a wide variety of clients in the travel industry since 2008. Sharing my passion for and knowledge of travel makes me happy. Cornell University graduate. Follow me on Twitter @HeatherLori7.

  • Kairho

    I usually use more traditional ways of initiating a conversation with my suppliers, even on “social media,” and have no problem with that. What I cannot stand is spammy contact initiated by a company I’ve never heard of (such as the merry snack place in the article) trying to sell me their product. That’s just as much spam as any other unrequested contact.

  • Inquirer1111

    I flew Virgin Atlantic a few weeks ago and loved their service and especially enjoyed the Harissa Houmous & Pomengranate Flatbread from their vendor Impress Sandwich. I sent both companies a thank you letter and they thanked me, but didn’t ask me to do anything else (which is fine with me).

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